Monthly Archives: May 2014

MD’s ‘Empty Lectern’ Debate

By Barry Rascovar

May 28, 2014 –THE MOST IMPORTANT person in the second Maryland governor’s debate didn’t bother to show up.

The empty lectern (center)

The empty lectern (center), WBFF governors debate

An empty lectern replaced Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown as the focal point of last evening’s dialogue between two other Democratic contenders, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur.

Brown was a no-show, as expected.

It robbed the event of its potential to highlight the differences among the three.

Brown’s Strategy

Brown, the frontrunner, played it safe. How many people will remember that he ducked this confrontation when they vote June 24?

Yet it was a huge disservice to Marylanders and an indication of the arrogance and hubris likely to accompany Brown if he makes it into the governor’s office.

Both Gansler and Mizeur profited from Brown’s absence. Anyone who tuned in will pick between the two and ignore the man who ran away from this debate.

Given that the debate was on WBFF-TV, which slants its news reporting to reflect the owner’s conservative views, the audience likely contained a lot of center-right Democrats who could play a key role on Election Day.

Plus for Gansler?

That should be good news for Gansler, who is clearly the centrist candidate in this primary contest.

While he didn’t wow anyone with his halting debating skills and less than scintillating campaign pitch, Gansler came across as experienced, thoughtful and a take-charge official.

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Attorney General Doug Gansler

He criticized the O’Malley-Brown administration’s 40 tax increases and Brown’s refusal to apologize for the state’s health exchange debacle that Gansler termed “a national embarrassment.”

Mizeur’s Winning Ways

Mizeur won the night’s politeness and demeanor award while sticking to her far-left positions on issues.

She came across as a classic tax-and-spend liberal with few realistic financing plans. She is the candidate least likely to succeed in wooing businesses (and jobs) to Maryland.

Mizeur is a different kind of gubernatorial candidate with lots of imaginative ideas. People like the thought of a different approach.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

But is she ready to manage a $39 billion budget and a work force of 80,000? Her resume is sorely lacking in executive experience.

Lessons Learned

What did we learn from the ‘Empty Lectern’ Debate? Not much that wasn’t known before. Gansler says he’d be The Jobs Governor:

  • He’s courageously supporting a lower corporate tax to make Maryland competitive with Virginia in the hunt for new businesses.
  • He says he’s identified $1.5 billion he can cut from the state budget.
  • He favors merit pay for teachers.
  • He favors the Cove Point natural gas export terminal as a jobs generator.
  • He favors natural gas hydraulic fracturing as long as studies show it is safe.
  • He opposes legalizing marijuana.

WBFF governor debate Mizeur says she’s The Champion For The Middle Class.

  • She wants across-the-board pay hikes for teachers.
  • And a living wage for low-income workers.
  • And a fully funded pension program for state workers and teachers.
  • And universal pre-kindergarten programs.
  • And a business tax cut for small businesses.
  • And a tax cut for middle-class families.
  • And affordable child care, after-school programs and summer programs for kids.
  • She views natural gas hydraulic fracturing as a cardinal environmental sin.
  • She places the Cove Point export terminal in that same class.
  • She wants to legalize and tax marijuana.

There’s nothing surprising in any of that.

Upcoming Events

Now it’s on to the final TV debate on June 2 that Brown says he’ll attend, plus a morning radio debate the next day few will hear.

It’s been a disappointing campaign season, capped now by Brown’s in-your-face no-show.

This doesn’t help voters make up their minds.

++++++++++

AS IF THE incomplete governor’s debate wasn’t enough, the day’s activities also included a three-way televised discussion by the lieutenant governor running mates.

It demonstrated the irrelevancy of that office.

Not only was the event aired Tuesday morning following the Memorial Day weekend — when nearly everyone was tending to other chores — it was broadcast on a Washington-area news cable station whose viewers live mainly in Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Going Out of State

To compound the insult, the Maryland candidates debated one another in NewsChannel 8’s Northern Virginia studio.

Thus a Maryland election debate took place at the out-of-state studio of an obscure cable station at a time when few were watching. Moreover, those who did tune in likely can’t vote in Maryland.

Isn’t time to recognize  Maryland made a mistake when it resurrected the office of lieutenant governor in 1970 after a 102-year hiatus?

The office has no constitutional powers.

It is a huge waste of tax dollars. (Brown earns $125,000 a year and has a staff of nine. Virginia’s lieutenant governor earns $36,321. Quite a contrast.)

Death Watch

Maryland lieutenant governors serve as surrogate campaigners and regurgitate the governor’s position on issues.

The occupant of this office is around simply in case the governor dies or becomes incapacitated.

Why not abolish the office, designate a line of succession and streamline state government?

It’s foolish to continue this charade in which we pretend that selecting a lieutenant governor really matters.

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Cannabis, Politics & Public Health

By Barry Rascovar

May 27, 2014 — According to the mother of the man who recently crashed his stolen dump truck through the doors of WMAR-TV and stormed through the TV station claiming he was God —  her son was a heavy marijuana user and that’s what caused his latest  psychotic episode.

Psychotic man crashes dump truck into WMAR-TV

Psychotic man crashes dump truck into WMAR-TV

The near-calamity brings new focus to the marijuana legalization debate in Maryland’s June 24 gubernatorial primary.

One candidate, Democrat Heather Mizeur, champions marijuana legalization. She claims its use “is less harmful to the body than alcohol or tobacco.”

A Maryland with legalized, regulated, and taxed marijuana will mean safer communities, universal early childhood education, and fewer citizens unnecessarily exposed to our criminal justice system,” her campaign website states.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

Note the one area Mizeur does not mention — the impact legalization might have on public health.

The WMAR incident is only the most glaring example of what might happen in the public health arena under cannabis legalization.

Marijuana Concerns

As luck would have it, the most recent issue of Columbia Magazine from Columbia University arrived in the mail recently with a lengthy article on pot legalization and what the university’s researchers have to say.

Writer Paul Hond raised these questions: “What are the harms to individuals from using cannabis? Will legalization lead to more use? Will the roads be less safe? And what about the kids?”

All those concerns require careful examination before entertaining Mizeur’s desire to make pot legal in Maryland.Columbia Magazine

Hond first spoke with Margaret Haney, who has run Columbia’s Marijuana Research Laboratory for 15 years.

When chronic marijuana smokers were asked to quit as part of the lab’s studies, here’s what occurred:

“Sleep disruption is one of the most robust withdrawal symptoms,” Haney says. “The smokers had trouble falling asleep. They woke up in the night. They woke up early. Their mood, too, reflected classic drug-withdrawal symptoms: irritability, anxiety, restlessness. Food intake dropped precipitously. The first two days, they consumed up to a thousand calories less than they did under baseline conditions.”

Haney continues, “The consequences of dependence are not as severe as with alcohol, cocaine, and other things. . . . However, once you’re a daily smoker, your ability to stop becomes as poor as cocaine users’.” Haney notes that “only 15 to 17 percent are able to maintain abstinence.”

Impact on Teens

Haney is most concerned about the consequences of teens who smoke marijuana regularly. “There’s going to be a cost for teenagers doing that. . . . I do worry about the developing brain and the effect of heavy marijuana use on the brain’s cannabinoid receptors” that affect mood, memory and stress.

Herbert Kleber, director of Columbia’s Division on Substance Abuse and former deputy drug czar under President George H. W. Bush (Bush the Good), is alarmed about another aspect: Today’s tokes are loaded with much more of the potent psychoactive compound THC.Marijuana Plants

In this complex, high-pressured world, Kleber understands “a lot of people are looking for escape.” But this isn’t the marijuana of your father’s days.

Back when the Beatles’ John Lennon called marijuana’s effects “a harmless giggle,” the amount of THC in a joint was about 2 percent, Kleber says.

Enhanced Potency

“Now, the THC level of the average DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] seizure is about 12 percent. At the dispensaries in California and Colorado, it’s 15 to 30 percent. . . It’s a very different drug. A very, very powerful drug.”

In previous interviews he has ticked off the public health hazards — “increased likelihood of cancer, impaired immune system, and increased chance of other drug problems, such as addiction to opiates. . . . Recently, substantial evidence has been published linking marijuana use to earlier onset of schizophrenia and other psychoses.”

Kleber is concerned as well about the impact pot has on the young.

Teen smoking marijuana “Marijuana does affect the brain. The younger you are when you start using it, the greater the risk that it will cause brain damage that will be with you the rest of your life.”

True, smoking weed isn’t as dangerous as a drug addiction, concedes John Mariani, director of Columbia’s Substance Treatment and Research Service. “Marijuana problems tend to be less dramatic — you’re not as ambitious, you perform less well. You probably stay home, watch TV, and eat ice cream. The disorder is about the absence of things — what doesn’t happen.”

Is that the brave, new world that awaits Maryland in a Mizeur governorship?

Pot and Driving

Another accusation is that marijuana legalization will dramatically increase highway accidents. Guohua Li, director of Columbia’s Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention, is studying that question. His findings indicate the alarmists are correct.

“First of all. . . the use of marijuana doubles the risk of being involved in a crash. The risk is not as great as with alcohol, which increases crash risk thirteenfold. But when a driver uses alcohol and marijuana, the risk of a fatal crash increases about twenty-four fold. So marijuana in combination with alcohol doubles the risk.”

Li’s 12-year study (1999-2010) of traffic fatalities found that marijuana involvement with car crashes tripled during that time.

Li also took on Mizeur’s main legalization thrust — that marijuana does less bodily harm than  alcohol. “If you argue that because alcohol is worse than marijuana. . . then marijuana should be legalized, that’s a race to the bottom, rather than a race to the top.”

Backlash to Legalization?

Even one of legalization’s supporters at Columbia, Carl Hart, a neuropsychopharmacologist, author and director of the Residential Studies and Methamphetamine Research Laboratories, worries these public safety and public health issues will lead to what Hond calls “a spirited backlash to legalization in the near future.”

Columbia University Prof. Carl Hart

Columbia University Prof. Carl Hart

In the past year, we’ve witnessed in Maryland a stampede among some politicians in Annapolis to give a younger generation of voters what they want — legal pot — even before they examine the possible consequences.

What we’re missing is a frank discussion of the wide-ranging ramifications legalization could have on society. The scientific results from Columbia University are not encouraging.

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MD Higher Ed: Kurt’s In, Brit’s Out

By Barry Rascovar

May 19, 2014 — In 24 hours last week, Maryland higher education underwent a rapid shakeup.

First came the long-expected but deeply regretted retirement announcement of William E. “Brit” Kirwan as top dog at the University System of Maryland.

University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan

USM Chancellor Brit Kirwan

Then came the surprise announcement former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is returning to his birth city as president of the University of Baltimore.

Kurt’s in; Brit’s out.

50-Year Academic Career

There’s no way to put a happy face on Kirwan’s retirement.

He’s been Mr. Higher Education in Maryland. Except for five years running a little ol’ rustbelt university called Ohio State, Kirwan dedicated his 50-year academic career to UM.

This former math professor staged a triumphal return from Ohio State as the popular choice to turn the UM system into a first-rate collegiate conglomerate. He largely succeeded, leaving USM with an international reputation.

The Chronicle of Higher Education rightly called the congenial Kirwan “a longtime national figure in public higher education.”

From Mayor to Dean

Schmoke, meanwhile, didn’t leave Baltimore in 1999 on an upbeat note.

His three terms as mayor of a troubled, aging urban city received middling marks. Progress largely stalled.

His place in the city’s history fades compared to his do-it-now predecessor (William Donald Schaefer) and his charismatic successor (Martin O’Malley).

The quiet, thoughtful Schmoke was better suited to academia.

New University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke

New UB President Kurt Schmoke

He found his niche as dean of the law school at Howard University (2003-2012), where he restored the school’s diminished reputation. During a time of flux at Howard, he then provided stability in the dual roles of general counsel and interim provost.

Now he’s been handed academia’s brass ring — a college presidency.

Bogomolny’s Contribution

Schmoke is fortunate he’s following the transformative Robert Bogomolny, who showed that a good manager with vision can put a struggling university on an upward trajectory. New, standout mid-town buildings. A full four-year undergraduate curriculum. A higher profile among Baltimore schools.

Continuing that momentum should be easy for Schmoke, given his wide name recognition among city elites, his genial demeanor and his understanding of what makes Baltimore tick.

The new UB president may have more difficulty adapting to the sharp elbows and intense in-fighting among leaders at the 11-campus, 154,000-student University System of Maryland.

Schmoke fared well at Howard, a private college with 10,000 students. UB has only 6,500 students and is part of a huge public university closely scrutinized by Annapolis politicians and overseen by a chancellor.

Kirwan’s Achievements

That’s where Kirwan could have provided strong support and guidance.

He kept simmering intra-campus disputes under control and steered feuding parties toward collegial middle ground. He balanced competing interests at those institutions while demanding improved academic performance.University System of Maryland

Kirwan embarked on an efficiency and innovation campaign, under pressure from the Republican Ehrlich administration, leading to over $400 million in savings. This made tuition hold-downs possible under the Democratic O’Malley administration without harming classroom quality.

The USM Chancellor championed broader use of less expensive internet courses, integrating computers into traditional lecture courses, eliminating non-essential offerings and revamping math, science and engineering programs.

Kirwan knew how to communicate with powerful regents, governors, legislators, competing college presidents, students and the public.

Who Comes Next? 

Finding a replacement with that same demeanor and collaborative mindset won’t be easy, but at least two USM presidents ought to receive strong consideration — Dr. Jay Perman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and Freeman Hrabowski at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Without Kirwan around, Schmoke will have to learn through experience that being a second-tier college president in a massive university system like USM isn’t all upbeat.

Exiting Chancellor Kirwan and UB President Robert Bogomolny

Exiting this summer: Chancellor Brit Kirwan (L) and UB President Robert Bogomolny (R)

The system’s largest and most important campuses, UMB and the flagship College Park institution, get most of the money and attention — deservedly so.

Meanwhile, a surging Towson University, with three times more students and massive campus improvements, is upstaging UB and attracting many of the best prospective UB undergraduates.

At the same time, a federal lawsuit by historically black institutions over program duplication could put a crimp in UB’s plans to offer popular areas of study.

Whither Higher Education?

Public higher education in Maryland is littered with question marks at the moment.

It’s becoming too expensive. Yet demand grows for more and better career-path studies. Fund-raising is difficult because of the system’s heavy state subsidy.

Competition among area institutions, both public and private (UMBC, Towson, UB, UMB, Coppin, Morgan State, Loyola, Notre Dame, Hopkins, Goucher, Stevenson), is intense.

Schmoke will have his hands full at the University of Baltimore.

So will Brit Kirwan’s successor as chancellor of the state’s university system.

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Insulting Post Endorsement

By Barry Rascovar

May 13, 2014 — Forty-five days before Maryland’s primary election (May 11), the Washington Post endorsed in the all-important Democratic race for governor.

Washington Post logo

Nothing wrong in selecting Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. He’s the clear front-runner.

But for a major newspaper to make its endorsement selection six weeks in advance of an election is stunning — and highly risky.

The final weeks of any campaign can be unpredictable.

Anything Could Happen

What if news surfaces that deeply embarrasses Brown? What if it turns out Brown was more involved in Maryland’s dysfunctional health exchange than he admits? What if a scandal erupts in the O’Malley-Brown administration? What if Brown performs poorly in the June 2 debate?

That early endorsement could look ludicrous.

Does the Post consider the rest of this campaign irrelevant? Apparently.

The newspaper’s editorialists seem to regard Maryland with an arrogance and disdain that insult its Free State readers.

Virginia Endorsement

When the Post endorsed for Virginia governor last year, it did so 23 days before the election, not 45.

That Virginia endorsement, running 1,008 words, gave a detailed analysis of the two candidates. The Post’s superficial endorsement for Maryland governor ran just 467 words.

Rather than place its Maryland endorsement prominently at the top of the page, as the Post routinely does for elections in Virginia and the District of Columbia, this one was positioned as the last of three editorials — almost an afterthought.

The editors didn’t even bother spelling out the word “Maryland” in the headline, though they had oodles of extra space.

District Endorsement

When the Post endorsed for D.C. mayor earlier this year, its editorialists produced a carefully reasoned, 1,082-word analysis. Clearly, the writers took great care crafting it — which clearly wasn’t the case with the Maryland governor’s endorsement.

I helped produce editorial pages for the Baltimore Sun for 20-plus years as deputy editorial page editor under the legendary Joe Sterne. I understand the pressures that come with newspaper endorsements.

But the Post’s effort last Sunday was inexcusable in its timing. Anything can happen over the next six weeks.

Weak Arguments

Sadly, the editors based their endorsement on a scant one-hour televised debate that contained more fluff than meat.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown

The editorial’s vapid reasoning was a marvel of shaky logic. It brought guffaws from two dozen readers who wrote critical email responses — all of them mocking the Post’s sloppy arguments.

Anthony Brown indeed may be “the best of three Democratic candidates,” but the Post made some laughably weak assertions:

  • He’s “a mainstay of the Democratic establishment and a paragon of the status quo.”

That’s a two-edged sword, as the Post went on to illustrate in mentioning Brown’s role in the miserably managed health exchange rollout. Does this mean the Post is endorsing the status quo in Maryland?

  • He is part of an administration that has a number of “substantive accomplishments.”

A point well taken.

  • Brown “strikes us as a conscientious public servant with broad experience.”

True, but what has he actually accomplished in all those years? That’s the crucial element the Post needed to address.

  • Brown may not have “offered a soaring vision” but “he has also not overpromised.”

Is that the Post’s way of supporting an “O’Malley Lite” administration for Maryland?

  • Brown has “the right approach” to help Maryland “compete with Virginia for jobs,” which would “foster a business climate more conducive to employment growth.” He “strikes us as the best candidate and the one most likely to improve what Democratic leaders concede is the state’s anemic track record in attracting and retaining jobs and employers.”

Those last editorial points are the most baffling. According to the Post endorsement, “the focus of Mr. Brown’s campaign” is a more positive business climate.

You could have fooled me.

Brown and Economic Growth

Brown’s statements, campaign ads and campaign documents don’t emphasize economic development but rather improving life for Maryland families, especially in education.

Is the Post’s candidate improving Maryland’s business climate by calling a plan to lower the state’s heavy corporate tax rate “a $1.4 billion corporate giveaway”?

Maryland’s corporate tax is 37 percent higher than Virginia’s. That’s a huge economic disincentive. No wonder Virginia cleans Maryland’s clock.

Brown’s jobs plan involves increased support for a smattering of business development programs. It will cost an average of $28 million annually for four years. That’s a skimpy investment. It won’t make Maryland more appealing than Virginia.

Paying for New Programs

The Post editorial blasts Attorney General Doug Gansler for lacking “a convincing plan” to pay for his corporate tax cut.  Yet Brown’s payment method for his jobs plan is equally lacking.

Brown wants to offset his jobs program costs through tax receipts from construction of the Purple and Red light rail lines. Those are phantom numbers.

Purple Line

First, little new tax money will be generated by light-rail construction in the early years of Brown’s administration. Delays are inevitable. The heavy work is at least two or three years away.

Second, revenue forecasts based on economic “multiplier” calculations rarely prove accurate.

Third, Brown’s revenue source dries up when construction stops. At that point, he’s left with a big revenue hole.

Fourth, essential federal aid may not come through. The Surfacing Transportation Act expires Oct. 1. Republicans and Democrats are light years apart on what to do. Gridlock could mean major cuts in transit aid.

Red Line logo

That could doom or delay Maryland’s projects, thus erasing Brown’s revenue for his jobs program.

None of this is mentioned in the Post endorsement. Don’t let facts get in the way of a hastily crafted editorial.

There are plenty of solid reasons for a newspaper to support Anthony Brown. Unfortunately, you won’t find many of them in the Post editorial.

The Post’s Predicament

Now the newspaper’s editorialists have to hope Brown doesn’t screw up before June 24.

Instead of critiquing campaign developments with a critical, impartial eye, the newspaper’s editorials must defend Brown if scandal erupts, or refute charges against him. The Post becomes Brown’s defender and advocate.

It’s a wound one of the nation’s best newspapers inflicted on itself by endorsing prematurely.

Holding off until later in the campaign would have given Post editorialists better insight into Brown.

It would have made for a stronger, more thoughtful endorsement.

The newspaper could have produced for readers a more complete picture of the governor’s race.

That opportunity now has been forfeited.

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Reviewing the First Governor’s Debate

By Barry Rascovar for MarylandReporter.com

May 12, 2014 — Now the important part of Maryland’s gubernatorial election campaign begins. The kickoff took place last week with the first televised debate among the three Democratic contenders.

Gubernatorial Debate May 7

The Scene at College Park

Though far from inspiring, that debate finally focused voter attention on the election. Equally important, it riveted the attention of reporters, who are now intently following comments and policy statements of the three candidates.

There’s roughly six weeks until voters must decide in the June 24 primary. And given the massive majority held by Democrats in Maryland, the results of the primary could be the ball game.

Notes From Debate No. 1

Here are some observations on the first debate, held at the University of Maryland, College Park:

  • Attorney General Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown tried mightily, but no one drew blood.

Gansler delivered some strong blows on Brown’s flubbed role in Maryland’s disgraceful health exchange rollout, but the issue was largely forgotten after the first ten minutes.

Gansler-May 7 debate

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Brown tried to hammer Gansler for not stopping a teen beach party, but the attorney general muted that attack by reminding the audience how difficult it is to make the right decisions when it comes to raising kids.

Del. Heather Mizeur decided to step aside while the two other candidates went after one another.

  • No one delivered a compelling message.

What we heard was standard campaign rhetoric the candidates have voiced hundreds of times before. New ideas never entered the debate. The candidates rushed through their one-minute responses so rapidly there was no time to expound on specifics.

  • Brown “won” by not losing.

As the clear front-runner, the lieutenant governor had the most to lose but he didn’t make a major blunder and stuck to his prepared responses and attacks on Gansler.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown-May 7 debate

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

He didn’t give many Democratic voters a reason to vote for him, but he also didn’t give them much to dislike, either.

  • Mizeur “won” by refusing to attack her opponents.

She tried to show she was the issues candidate but in the process revealed an extraordinarily narrow agenda — women’s rights and wage disparity.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

  • Gansler “won” by presenting himself as the one candidate willing to criticize the O’Malley-Brown administration.

He objected to the administration raising taxes 40 times and worsening Maryland’s anti-business reputation. He suggested voters might want to try a different approach.

  • Kudos to NBC’s David Gregory for running the debate with a firm hand.

No one was allowed to abuse the time limits. When attacks were made, Gregory gave the other candidate a chance to respond. He followed up  on hot-button issues with additional questions. Most questions from the panelists were on the mark — except for the dumb Redskins question that wasted valuable time better devoted to pivotal issues confronting the next governor.

  • All the candidates got away with stretching — or misplacing — the truth in their remarks.

Gansler misled viewers about the reasons he was sanctioned when Montgomery County state’s attorney by the Maryland Court of Appeals for ripping into defendants in criminal cases at press conferences. We haven’t heard the end of this.

Brown inaccurately claimed credit for fixing the health exchange, saying he “changed leadership” (no, the exchange leader quit) and all is now hunky dory. Hardly. He also claimed leadership of the base-realignment effort in Maryland. That’s overstating the case.

Mizeur gave dubious reasons for legalizing marijuana. Her rationale: It is “less harmful to the body than alcohol or tobacco.” (And that makes it a wise public health policy?) Then she switched direction and said legalizing pot would generate enough revenue to pay for all her new programs. (Ugh.)

  • All three blew it on their opening and closing statements.

Gansler: He’ll give “voice to the voiceless” and stand up to unnamed “special interests.”

Brown — He’ll “build a better Maryland” and continue the direction of the current administration.

Mizeur — She’ll “bring results for Maryland families.” She promises “policy, not platitudes.”

Those clichéd statements explain why a majority of voters remain undecided. They may look for the “none of the above” button on primary day.

  • Finally, there’s one thing the candidates agree wholeheartedly about: the winning political color this campaign season is Columbia Blue.

During the debate, Mizeur, Brown and Gansler all displayed that unique shade of blue-gray named after my New York alma mater’s collegiate color.

Governor's Debate

A sea of Columbia Blue

At glance I thought the “in” color for Maryland pols in 2014 was Carolina Blue, named for that university in Chapel Hill, N.C. But a closer examination of photos from the debate revealed the color selection was a darker shade than sky blue.

By the way, Columbia Blue also is the school color of Johns Hopkins University.

And it is, oddly enough, the team color of baseball’s Kansas City Royals (why not Royal Blue?) and in a sad twist of fate, it’s the team color of racist Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.

Wonder what Brown, Mizeur and Gansler will be wearing at the next debate on June 2?

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Defending Joe Vallario

By Barry Rascovar

May 6, 2014 — THERE’S NO DENYING Del. Joseph F. Vallario, Jr. of Prince George’s County is a stingy gatekeeper when it comes to loosening Maryland’s civil and criminal laws.

But is the gruff chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis really the scourge of the legislature, the anti-Christ intent on malevolently doing in all liberal causes?

Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joe Vallario

Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joe Vallario

A recent op-ed in The Baltimore Sun by Sidney Rocke, an attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, accuses the conservative Vallario of being a one-man, “dictatorial” wrecking crew — especially on bills Rocke favors.

It’s true Vallario is inordinately protective of criminal defense attorneys. He’s one himself and he takes a hard line on bills that might narrow their legal practices — and their income — or make it more difficult for defense attorneys to win their cases. “Let ’em go Joe” is what Rocke says staffers call Vallario.

But to blame the defeat of liberalizing legislation solely on Vallario is a misreading of the inner workings of the Maryland General Assembly.

Serving Legislative Leaders

Vallario has performed a useful role for legislative leaders over the past 21 years.

He disposes of bills that are too sweeping, too revolutionary, too inflammatory, too impractical, too poorly thought out, too poorly drafted or ahead of their time.

Yet he does so with a majority vote from others on his Judiciary Committee. The panel is intentionally configured to act as the General Assembly’s execution squad.

Every legislature needs such a panel, where the presiding officer sends well-meaning but unrealistic crime and punishment bills for burial.

Intervention Yields Results

Sometimes important bills get the same treatment. Then the House speaker or the governor steps in to urge Vallario and other committee members to yield on bills such as marijuana decriminalization or handgun control. The pressure usually works.

It’s an old story in Annapolis, something Rocke neglected to include in his angry op-ed. Killer committees have been around a long time.

Remember Joe Owens, the highly conservative Judiciary Committee chairman from liberal Montgomery County?

Abominable ‘No’ Man

He dominated that committee for 14 years, earning the sobriquets “Killer Joe” and “the Abominable ‘No’ Man.”

Owens helped defeat or delay all sorts of liberal reforms on gun control, drunk driving, child support and victim rights. One year, 61 percent of the bills sent to his committee bit the dust.

Joe Owens was a colorful and controversial figure: direct, open and honest.

“Let’s face it,” he once said, “the majority of bills we get should not be passed. . . [T]his is not a little contest. . . When we pass a bill, four million people have to live by it.”

Crusty But Lovable

Over in the Senate, irascible Walter M. Baker of Cecil County served the same role for 17 years chairing the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Crusty, curmudgeonly and a determined conservative thinker, Baker had a drawer filled with idealistic reform bills he side-tracked. “The only good bill is a dead bill,” he used to quip to the entertainment of his colleagues.

Former Sen. Walter M. Baker

Former Sen. Walter M. Baker

Still, Baker conducted fair and deliberate hearings. He yielded when pressed to do so by the Senate president or governor while always defending his belief in limited government.

Political Counterweights

Often over the past 50 years conservatives chairing Maryland’s judicial panels have served as counterweights.

Vallario’s proclivity for killing bills balanced the liberal attitude of Sen. Brian Frosh’s Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh

Owens’ “killer committee” balanced the liberal mindset of Sen. Joe Curran, who chaired Judicial Proceedings for 16 years.

Earlier in Curran’s tenure running Judicial Proceedings he was paired against another conservative legal thinker chairing the House Judiciary Committee, Thomas Hunter Lowe of Talbot County — who later kept a firm hand on that panel as Speaker of the House.

House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe

House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe

To blame the demise of reform legislation on Joe Vallario is to miss the bigger picture.

Legislating in the State House is a delicate balancing act.

Senators and delegates come together in Annapolis with 188 points of view. They represent different parts of the state whose citizens hold diverse perspectives on the same issue.

Agreement Isn’t Easy

No wonder so many bills fail to win majority approval. Passing legislation is an art. Getting a green light from the Judiciary Committee takes lots of patience, negotiation, coalition-building and tactical smarts. It won’t happen just because a bill is well-intentioned.

Vallario faces a difficult challenge running for reelection this year in a new, unfamiliar northern Prince George’s County district. He may not return. Frosh definitely won’t be back: He’s running for attorney general.

We could end up with two new chairmen of these important committees. One of them might become the next stingy gatekeeper.

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Garrett County’s Isolation — Responses

By Barry Rascovar

May 4, 2014 — Who woulda thunk it? A column on Garrett County’s isolation in mountainous, far Western Maryland produced a tsunami of responses — both pro and con — including one from an offended gubernatorial wannabe’s staffer and another from an offended O’Malley administration.

And here I thought I was saying something nice for a change!

Garrett County

A few local residents felt I was too kind in my admiration; others appreciated that someone from the big city three hours away noticed there’s more out to Garrett than state forests, ski lifts and a man-made lake.

The governor’s folks didn’t like being accused of “benign neglect” when it comes to promoting and aiding the state’s most decidedly Republican county. The administration’s opus, though, inadvertently proved my point.

The letter noted that O’Malley has poured $70 million into Garrett’s roads since 2007. There’s another $10 million coming this year, too — nearly all of it to improve state highways in the county.

The Rest of the Story

Here are some facts left out of the O’Malley administration’s letter: Garrett received 20 percent less in local transportation aid, 15 percent less in recreation and natural resources aid, 4 percent less in library aid and 2 percent less in education aid from Annapolis this year — even as the overall state budget grew by 4.3 percent.

So much for the O’Malley-Brown administration’s claim of putting Garrett County on its priority list.

Indeed, there’s scant evidence either O’Malley or Brown have thought much about helping Garrett boost its economic potential as a recreation wonderland.

Ever hear about the governor or lieutenant governor making news by vacationing at Deep Creek Lake or at the Wisp ski resort?

Deep Creek Lake

Deep Creek Lake

Ever catch O’Malley or Brown cutting commercials that promote Garrett as a retreat for families who like outdoor activities?

To them, it’s a forgotten, Republican part of Maryland not worth their time.

Wisp ski resort

Meanwhile, a spokesman for businessman Larry Hogan Jr. wrote to protest the column’s assertion that no candidate for governor cares about Garrett County.

“Western MD is absolutely a priority for Hogan,” says Adam Dubitsky of the Republican candidate’s campaign staff, “which is why he visited shortly after announcing and will be back again. . . .  Larry has repeatedly criticized Annapolis elites for ignoring Marylanders who live west of Frederick City and especially those who reside west of Sideling Hill.”

Fracking Can Be Fractious

Other readers took issue with the column’s concern that overly strict state regulations could doom hopes for an economic boost tied to drilling for natural gas in Garrett County using hydraulic fracturing techniques, better known as “fracking.”

One resident wrote, “I live in Garrett county and do not want fracking here. Don’t be too quick to judge.”

Here’s another: “Thank you so much for your article about Garrett County. . .  in most areas you ‘hit the nail on the head’.  However, many in the county do not want fracking, many are concerned about the impact on our tourist industries including the lake and the many local state parks. . . .  noise and water pollution are the major concerns.  Fracking is a big, noisy business with big trucks and constant disruption.  I know that simplifies a problem. . .  but it is a concern, as well as a drop in the property values.  After living near a natural gas storage pumping site for 25 years. . .  the traffic and noise are an impact on daily living and enjoyment of property, or small acreage.  Just sayin’. . . Thank you for ‘listening!’ ”

A resident of Lonaconing wrote: “Very interesting article, although a couple minor errors, plus, I wanted to give you a little additional insight. . .

“First, Garrett Co is not the only county that will benefit from fracking. . . . Allegany County will also. . . western Allegany County (the George’s Creek valley) also sits over the Marcellus Shale reserve.

“Secondly, as far as gubernatorial candidates. . . when [Doug] Gansler did his Western Maryland tour, he only went as far as Cumberland (Allegany Co.). . . He never touched Garrett. . . Hogan is the only candidate I know of that’s gone to Garrett for a political visit. . .

“Other than that, nice article. . . nice to get a little focus up this way.”

Community College Guarantee

Here’s another response concerning Garrett County’s guarantee of a community college education for its high school graduates:

“As a Western Marylander, I appreciated this column. I thought you would be interested to know that, inspired in part by the Garrett County Commissioners’ decision to pay for community college for Garrett students, the Allegany County Commissioners have dedicated most of the revenue they receive from the new Rocky Gap Casino to paying for local students to attend Allegany College of Maryland and Frostburg State University. In discussions I heard, they talked about both the economic development benefit of having a better-educated populace, as well as the ability to keep our young people from having to leave the county for opportunity.”

From the president of Garrett College, Rick MacLennan, came this comment:

“Thank you for your recognition of the County/College partnership.  Existence of the County scholarship program was a significant variable in my decision to accept the presidency (and yank my family across the country from the state of Washington) in 2010.

“It was very nice meeting you—come back and see us again.”

 

Garrett Co. MD

Garrett County (in pink)

 

Others didn’t see it that way. Here’s a correspondence from Grantsville:

“I liked reading it, but I think you drank the Cool-Aid a bit too heavily! I have only lived out here for 6 years, so I hardly qualify as a resident let alone a local. I am a retired software engineer and teach at Garrett College (one course in computer science).  Some observations that I have gleaned:

  1. The average Garrett Scholarship student is ill-prepared for much of anything out of high school.  90% going to Garrett College have to take remedial math and English! . . . It may be that those going to other institutions are better-prepared, but I suspect it is self-selection rather than ability.
  2. Of my students, I have lost about 20% after the first week, 60% by the mid-terms, and 20% will pass. . . I am extremely lenient with no dings for late homework, open book and unlimited time for tests, etc. and still see only a couple of students get through the semester with good grades!
  3. The primary school system does not seem to adequately provide for vocational training. . . I suspect a lot of students should be pushed toward building trades, communications, wind turbine maintenance, etc.
  4. A lot of Garrett’s problems are self-inflicted.  There is a lot of NIMBYism that is often misplaced.  For instance, the objections to zoning prevent any useful regulation of land use including fracking, wind turbines, suburban sprawl, etc. . . .

“On the positive side:

  1. The roads are incredibly well-maintained, especially in the winter.
  2. The temperatures are about 10F lower than certainly Baltimore and even Cumberland (more like 8F there).
  3. Services are adequate and Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Morgantown, or Altoona (or even Frederick, D.C., or Baltimore) are a reasonable distance.
  4. Arts are OK — I . . . travel back to Frederick weekly to play in the Frederick Symphony because there is nothing close even at Frostburg University. We do have some arts at Frostburg, Cumberland, GLAF [Garrett Lake Arts Festival], and Music at Penn Alps. . . .
  5. The fall is fantastic!  Winter is a real winter (if you like that — if not, don’t come out here!)”

Missing Key Points

Here’s a different perspective from a Garrett resident:

“The article totally misses several key facts . . .

“Garrett County (GC) residents are partially responsible for their political isolation. They lean so far right that ordinary (above and below middle class citizens) hardly ever speak out regarding their concerns about important issues. . . . .

“The lack of public outcry has caused a severe excommunication of area residents. Since they don’t raise their voice, it leaves only wealthy business owners to push political ideas. This has turned Garrett County into a mecca for minimum wage. Our leaders complain that families don’t stay in the area, yet college educated people are left working at Lowe’s or Wisp, for a scant $ 7.25 per hour, because our local government has done nothing to address wage inequality. . . .

“While the state has certainly been unfair to the county, county government has done nothing but benefit a few select business owners, while largely ignoring the struggling working population.”

That’s a portion of the responses to my rather mild column.

Folks speak their mind in Garrett County, though they do so with extreme politeness. I found it a neighborly place that isn’t given sufficient attention by the powers in Annapolis. The citizens of that remote mountain county deserve better.

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Brown Ducks Debates: Fear of Flubbing?

By Barry Rascovar

May 1, 2014 — Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown plays by his own rules. If he feels like tilting the playing field in his favor, he’ll do it — even if it keeps him hidden from Maryland voters.

Indeed, it appear that hiding from Democratic voters is exactly what Brown is doing in ducking out on debates agreed upon back in February.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Gone are the three TV debates agreed upon by the candidates’ camps on Valentine’s Day. Instead, Brown will only do two.

 Empty Seat in His Future? 

And out of nowhere Brown comes up with a bizarre debate on a radio station with a tiny audience (the lowest-rated news/talk station, by a wide margin, in Baltimore).

Meanwhile, negotiations for a WBFF-TV debate have gotten nowhere with Brown, who could become an empty seat on the debate stage that night.

All of this is par for the course Anthony Brown is playing. He’s continuing his front-runner strategy that calls for minimizing opportunities to make gaffs in non-scripted situations.

Brown’s handlers seem to be calling the shots, creating new fictions to justify their decision to renege on a three-debate schedule for TV viewers.

Given the dearth of excitement about the June 24 primary and the difficulty in getting people to actually vote on that day, gubernatorial debates should be a priority. The more the better.

Sizing Up the Candidates

Unless Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur present themselves repeatedly in TV debates for voters to judge, how are citizens supposed to size up the candidates for governor?

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

Brown’s vapid advertising campaign tells us nothing about the candidate’s views on hot-button issues.

We don’t have a clue what he’d do as governor about gun control, funding the Red Line, death-row inmates, the state’s enormous pension deficit, fracking, the “rain tax,” the University of Maryland Law School’s crusade against Eastern Shore chicken producers and the botched rollout of Maryland’s Health Exchange that Brown took full credit for — until the system crashed and devoured nearly $200 million of government funds (not to mention the distress  and upset it caused tens of thousands of Marylanders).

Apparently, Brown wants Democrats to walk blindly into voting cubicles and cast a ballot based on his paid propaganda ads and little else: Vote for me because I’m next in line and have the support of the party establishment.

Skeptical View of Voters

That’s a demeaning view of voters, almost Soviet-style politics in which the Politburo’s designated successor is guaranteed victory. The voter becomes almost superfluous.

Ever since the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960, televised confrontations between candidates has been the best way for Americans to reach a judgment on contenders.

Brown’s forte may be speech-reading and regurgitating campaign rhetoric day after day, but he’s been involved in State House affairs for 16 years. If he can’t hold his own against opponents on issues fired at them by interviewers, it would be surprising.

At the moment, though, Brown is ducking and running from as many debates as he can.

Why? What’s he worried about? Stumbling over a response? Getting his facts wrong? Not knowing the facts?

The lieutenant governor would be better off agreeing to more televised debates and taking his chances.

As it is, he’s now a prime target for scathing attacks from Gansler, Mizeur and the media about his timidity.

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Debates are enlightening and an integral part of statewide elections everywhere in this country.

Brown owes it to voters to set aside his qualms and participate in as many televised confrontations and discussions among the candidates as possible before the June 24 vote.

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